Dinsha Mistree, Dibyendu Mishra, Arshia Arya, Parantak Singh, Joyojeet Pal
Cite: Mistree, D., Mishra, D., Arya, A., Singh, P., Pal, J. (2021) Modi’s 2021 Cabinet Reshuffle: The More Things Change, the More they Stay the Same. Available online at: http://joyojeet.people.si.umich.edu/cabinet2021
On July 8, Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a massive cabinet shuffle. Observers were quick to point out that this move appeared to be the biggest shift in centre-level politics since 2014, when Modi first came to national power. A dozen ministers, including cabinet stalwarts Prakash Javedkar and Harsh Vardhan, found themselves removed from the cabinet. More than twenty others were extended portfolios, swelling the ranks of the cabinet.
Cabinet reshuffles are often done to signal a new direction and reward / punish the individuals and factions involved in such a shuffle. But even several days after the reshuffle, observers continue to debate why this reshuffle took place and what new direction the Modi government wants to pursue with its new cabinet. As is its prerogative, the Modi government made no clear statement about why this change in personnel was necessary nor did any senior authority explain what is expected from the new cabinet. Although governments in India and elsewhere change senior personnel without explaining why a replacement is being made, there has understandably been considerable speculation about what the change in personnel means for the future. This speculation can be grouped into three categories.
First, in social media and elsewhere, observers commented that Modi relieved several ministers for performance-based reasons. It is no secret that Harsh Vardhan, as health minister, has struggled to execute the government’s response to the COVID-19 pandemic. In a similar vein, pundits have speculated on social media and in the press that Ravi Shankar Prasad, the erstwhile minister of communications, minister of electronics and IT, and minister of law and justice, had been relieved because of his hostility towards foreign social media companies, especially Twitter. This explanation that poor performance was behind the decision to conduct a reshuffle is hopeful, but is probably not correct.
These explanations are also driven by claims that the performance problems were with the individuals rather than the specific ministries, with the hold the PMO has over each of them. The replacement of Harsh Vardhan may be expected in that vein, but Mansukh Mandaviya, a Modi and Shah loyalist from Gujarat who has replaced him, has never served in a health-related administrative post. While Prasad’s replacement with a former IAS officer would seem to suggest a different, ‘competent’ hand, Javadekar’s replacement in Information and Broadcasting–Anurag Thakur–seems to be a firebrand in his social media and public speeches.
Second, a symbolic element was a public performance of the consolidating power of Modi and Shah. To be clear, Modi and Shah have exerted nearly complete control on almost all aspects of governance since coming to power and have enforced strict party discipline across the ranks of the BJP / RSS. But symbolically, with the current round of exits, most of the party’s older politicians from the Vajpayee days are gone. (The two exceptions would be Rajnath Singh and Nitin Gadkari, who should both be seen as much more as RSS ministers than Vajpayee loyalists.) This notion is speculative, since although many of the new entrants are indeed loyalists as well as bureaucrats and entrants from other parties, the RSS is likely to still exert tremendous influence in the cabinet. The use of ex-bureaucrats here is also important. They symbolize a technocratic role and do not necessarily have the ties to other organizations or factions within parties. Also, the expansion of ex-bureaucrats further signals the possibility of post-retirement possibilities for civil servants.
The third explanation is that the cabinet changes are a nod to recent and upcoming state election fights. Although the failed state election efforts in Southern states is seen in their near total exclusion from the cabinet, Rajeev Chandrashekar–who helmed BJP’s failed show in Kerala was included–though he is a Karnataka RS member. From the recent wins, we see the consolation prize to Sarbananda Sonowal who had to give up his Chief Ministership, a rewarding of Nitish Kumar through the inclusion of RP Singh and a schadenfreude slot through Pashupati Paras. There was also a realignment of West Bengal berths – rewarding TMC turncoats, while ejecting Babul Supriyo, who failed to bring much weight to the party in the State elections. As we see with the JDU, LJP rewards and with TMC crossovers and a seat to Apna Dal, the BJP is making clear that aligning with it brings benefits to members of regional parties who choose to switch allegiances. This could serve an important signaling effect for attracting turncoats in the future. We see that of the smaller states going to elections in 2022, Goa, Uttarakhand, Himachal, and Manipur each got seats, while the bulk went to Uttar Pradesh. Gujarat continues to remain well represented in the cabinet.
Compared to these positions, we suggest that this reshuffle will not substantially change the course of politics or governance in India. Major decisions across all portfolios will continue to be set by the Prime Minister’s Office with close input from the Home Minister, Amit Shah. Recruiting opposition politicians may become easier, but with respect to campaigning, the new ministers will continue to push coordinated messaging that is consistent across the rest of the Party.
In order to understand what triggered the shuffle and what might be expected with the new cabinet, we examine the change in ministers. In India, because of anti-defection laws and otherwise tight party discipline, there are few mechanisms to identify what a member of parliament might do when elevated to a ministerial role. One area where members of parliament can distinguish themselves is on social media, where they can align themselves with certain positions. Almost all the politicians elevated to ministerial berths at this point have influential and active Twitter presences.
We look at two dimensions of Twitter presence. First, we examine the polarities of the followers of each member of parliament. Second, we look at the frequency of engagement of each minister. Ministers that constantly tweet . We rank the performance of all ministers in the shuffle as “Big Winners,” “Winners,” stayed the “Same,” “Losers,” and “Big Losers” based on the number of portfolios gained or lost, with different scores for Cabinet, MoS (I) and Mos. This is colour-coded in the graphical representation. We compare the follower polarity score, meaning the extent to which the followers of a politician belong to their own party versus others, and the monthly tweet average in Figure 1. The size of the bubble corresponds to the number of followers, log scaled.
We observe no discernible patterns in polarity or in tweeting frequency between ministers who won and those who lost. However, it is important that the majority of losers are relatively high profile and highly followed. Some of the biggest losers have among the largest social media followings, suggesting that individual politicians are expendable. High-profile cabinet members with sizable influences in mainstream and social media (such as Uma Bharti, Suresh Prabhu, Rajiv Pratap Rudy, Maneka Gandhi, and Rajyavardhan Rathore or one-time Twitter megastar chief ministers like Raman Singh and Vasundhara Raje who went off the radar in the past), now we see high profile and long-standing leaders like DV Sadananda Gowda, Thawar Chand Gehlot, and Santosh Gangwar removed with no real concern for its consequences on the party. This also underlines the lack of valuable signal from social media on a leader’s outcomes within the party.
In Figure 2, we see the states that are most represented in the new cabinet in red. The BJP’s strongholds in northern and central India are well-represented in the cabinet, with states like Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh holding special weight (both coming up for elections in 2022).
Finally, we see a fascinating pattern as to which states get cabinet berths. We gave a score to each state on based on the number of individual berths they have in the cabinet, and the distinction is stark, since there is a massive dominance of Hindi-speaking states, along with Gujarat. However, the image would be even more stark if we visualized not based on the pure number of individuals in the cabinet, but instead on the ministries or their budget, since a few key cabinet ministers dominate several important portfolios.
The Bottom Line
Modi replaced a loyal set of ministers with another set of loyal ministers who believe in a similar agenda. With a few exceptions, the newly-appointed ministers lack substantive experience in the portfolios that they will be taking over, suggesting that they will struggle to execute on the directives coming out of the PMO. This cabinet shuffle seems to be more flash than substance.